Our first half-day on Easter Island (or Rapa Nui) was off to a good start. As a result, my family and I were eager to discover more of the island during our next two days of touring around. Considering that the only way to explore was pretty much to join a guided tour, we had no problems doing so– after all, having a local guide would be beneficial for insight into the history, culture, and geography of this isolated, enigmatic island.
We joined a tour of perhaps no more than ten people aboard, and our van took us to our first destination on Rapa Nui. Our tour guide was a Rapa Nui native in his early twenties who was very informative on just about everything– since he grew up on the island his entire life, he definitely knew what to say. Not only that, but also I could tell that he was passionate about sharing his culture with us, and I found it quite moving. I could see that, in general, the Rapa Nui people still retained strong ties to their history and traditions, even in the face of Chilean annexation.
Our tour van drove through plenty of narrow, winding roads in the countryside. A couple of times along the way, we had to stop or slow down to let various animals– cattle, horses, dogs– cross the street, which was something relatively new (and entertaining!) for me. Our guide told us that, while the cattle and dogs were mostly domesticated, the horses were actually wild, having been brought over several centuries ago and for a moment domesticated before being let to roam freely– in fact, it’s said that there are more horses on the island than humans today!
We reached our first stop at Volcan Rano Raraku, a volcanic crater famous for being the location of the quarry for moai-making. About 95 percent of moai were made at this site for 500 years before being moved all the way to villages throughout the island. Today, visitors can still see dozens of remaining moai— some completed, some not– left at the foothills of the massive volcano.
During our visit at Rano Raraku, our tour guide explained the moai‘s composition, which are essentially made from volcanic ash, as it’s a soft material easy for carving body features of village chiefs and other well-off locals onto, as means of respect after they passed away. Our guide also dispelled many of the myths about moai, including a few listed below:
- Moai are actually full-bodied statues, not just heads. Much of their bodies are buried due to land changes over the centuries, which in effect have preserved them extremely well.
- With the exception of one cluster of moai, the majority of moai statues are placed with their bodies facing away from the ocean, not towards it. Reason being is that, traditionally, they were considered to be “protecting” their village by “watching out for the people,” instead of respecting the ocean.
- As much as many people want to believe it, moai were NOT made by aliens! True, many people don’t know how exactly the Rapa Nui ancestors created, let alone moved, the statues during and after completion. Many theories have been made, but none actually confirmed.
We spent about 90 minutes to two hours walking around the volcano’s foothills, passing by dozens of the massive, monolithic statues. Besides coming across many of the “classic” flat moai, we also saw one known as tukuturi, which stands out from the rest. Aside from being significantly smaller than the others (some which can reach up to 20 meters high), it also contains remnants of feet, which traditional moai don’t have. In fact, the tukuturi has been quite controversial, in whether it should be considered a moai or not, since it looks very different from the others and it was made centuries after the majority were made– in any case, it’s considered the “last moai ever made.”
Afterwards, we drove to our next site of the day, which was Ahu Tongariki. It’s home to the largest, complete ahu structure of moai on the island, with 15 of them lined up along the shoreline. The structure had actually been in ruins prior to discovery, as they’d been toppled during civil wars in the 18th and 19th centuries and also swept by a tsunami in the 1960’s. They were restored with help from the Japanese in the 1990’s, and since have been one of the main highlights of the island.
From Ahu Tongariki, we drove back to Hanga Roa for lunch provided by the tour before driving to Te Pito Kura, where we saw toppled moai that were never restored. Unlike with Tongariki, archaeologists had chosen to leave the site as-is to show how it really was in the past, and to understand that not everything can be perfectly-placed together.
Our final stop was at Anakena, where it has the only white-sand beach on the island. It’s the only spot to swim and actually enjoy the beach, as opposed to the rest of Rapa Nui, where its coastline is mostly rocky. We had some time to ourselves to check out the beach, as well as the ahu of seven moai lined up nearby. My family and I got some fresh fruit juices to enjoy before we left to return to the hotel and end our first full day of sightseeing.
In contrast, our second full day on Rapa Nui was less busy in terms of sightseeing. While we did spend the whole day on a guided tour, it was at a slower pace and more focused on the island’s geography. We began with a visit to Volcan Rano Kau, an extinct volcano whose crater contains a flourishing bath of freshwater plants. Not too far from it is Orongo, a village at the very southwest edge of the island, where the famous “birdman competition” took place in the 17th-18th centuries (years after the last moai construction).
Legend has it that Make-Make was the chief-god of the birdman cult, and every year in September, people would have a competition not only to honor him, but also decide the next chief of the cult. In order to become chief, competitors would jump off the rocky cliffs, swim to a nearby island where they would take a sooty tern egg, and carry it back to the village while keeping it intact– whoever was first would be chief for a year. I found the story intriguing, as well as amazing in its contrast with the moai-constructing people just a few centuries before.
Just before lunch, we made a stop at Vinapu, a former ahu where moai have since been toppled and left as-is. What makes this site particularly distinctive is how the platform was constructed: the stones were incredibly well-cut and fitted together so tightly that not even a piece of paper could go through! It’s unlike previous platforms made, as the Rapa Nui didn’t have advanced tools back in the day to cut stones so finely– it’s speculated that Peruvians somehow made it to the island, as the platform’s structure resembles those found at archaeological sites in Peru.
We had lunch in Hanga Roa before continuing with our visit in the afternoon. At Ana Te Pahu, we explored its caves before visiting Akivi, another moai site where the statues are the only on the island to face towards the ocean– it’s speculated that they’re looking out to Tahiti, the next “nearest” civilization from it. Finally, we reached Puna Pau, the quarry where pukao were made– they were made from red scoria, which was only found in that part of the island.
Our tour ended shortly thereafter, and we returned to our hotel around 17:00. We soon head out once more to get dinner at a restaurant near the Tahai– besides offering views of the moai, we also got great views of the sunset as we enjoyed ceviche and Pisco Sours.
…and that effectively wraps up my recap of Rapa Nui! Following dinner that night, we would return to our hotel to rest and prepare to catch our flight back to Santiago the next morning. Spending two-and-a-half days on the island was a great experience, probably one of the few which really captured my interest in its history, landscapes, and architecture. I learned a lot from the visit, and I encourage people to make it out for a visit if the opportunity arises.
More of my South American trip to recap in due course. Next up: Lima, Peru!